DHS officials have told Oklahoma County's top prosecutor they have not violated the state Open Meeting Act, but they promised to “do an even better job” of informing the public.
“We do not believe there have been any violations of the Open Meeting Act and certainly no blatant disregard of law,” wrote Charles Waters, the general counsel of the Department of Human Services.
District Attorney David Prater in August called for an explanation from DHS after getting complaints about meetings of the commissioners who oversee the agency.
Prater said Tuesday he still has concerns.
He said he specifically continues to be concerned about the DHS commission's use of committees that hear matters in private.
Prater said, “No final determination has been made whether the DHS commission violated the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act or not.”
A willful violation of the act is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and a year in the county jail.
Prater met Friday with DHS Director Howard Hendrick, DHS Chairman Richard DeVaughn and Waters.
The commission is made up of nine members. It has a budget committee, a rules committee and a facilities committee.
In testimony for a lawsuit over foster care, DeVaughn has admitted limiting membership on committees to four and under to avoid having to comply with the Open Meeting Act.
“I don't think that's the only reason, but that is a — a good reason,” DeVaughn testified.
“Committees meet sometimes hastily to discuss property matters or others, and to conform to the Open Meeting Act, it would be a pretty onerous task.”
In his Aug. 12 letter, Prater told DHS that he had heard complaints about the committees from one commissioner, Steven Dow, of Tulsa. Prater wrote Dow asserted the law was purposely being violated by the creation of these committees to discuss budget items and other matters.
No decisions made
In the DHS response, Waters wrote the committees are lawful because they make no final decisions and do not eliminate matters from future consideration by the full commission. He wrote the committees “simply obtain information and make recommendations to the commission.”
DHS officials agreed with Prater that they can be more specific on their commission meeting agendas.
Agendas are outlines of what is up for discussion or action. “We will, as you propose, attempt in future agenda items to set forth the major changes contemplated by the action,” Waters wrote.
Prater had raised with DHS officials a complaint from Dow about the agenda of a June 14 meeting.
Prater had warned the agency that “future agenda items which are phrased very vaguely and have imbedded within them massive policy changes may indeed constitute violations.”
DHS officials also promised commissioners will return to their seats in the future after closed executive sessions.
Commissioners then will vote on whether to adjourn meetings.
Attorney says last complaint was in '87
Prater had told DHS officials that commissioners had not properly come back into open session in one or more meetings. Prater warned DHS there were no minor violations of the law. “Oklahoma's law on openness in government serves an important and noble purpose,” Prater wrote.
In the response, Waters wrote: “We take seriously our obligations to follow the law and have a long history of complying with the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act. We do not wish to do anything which would diminish our record in this area. Until now, the last complaint we received was in 1987 … Since that time the commission … has held approximately 240 public meetings and considered well over 3,000 agenda items without a complaint.”
Dow on Tuesday thanked Prater for “his prompt and thorough investigation of these important issues and, in the process, clarifying the provisions of the Open Meeting Act.” Dow said he looked forward to the commission following the suggested changes.